Business Times - 04 Nov 2010
A blunt message to Obama, allies
By turning to Republicans, voters say Obama will need to do more to fix the economy if he wants to get re-elected in 2012
By LEON HADAR
SOME political analysts had predicted that the 2010 midterm elections would turn into a Republican tsunami that could drown the Obama administration and the Democrats who could end up losing their majority in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate.
According to this worst-case scenario for the Democrats, the Republicans would have picked up more than 70 seats in the House and win even the Senate races in California and other Democratic-leaning 'blue' states.
Well, the 2010 midterms are probably not going to become a Republican tsunami, with the Democrats expected to lose less than 70 seats in the House and to retain a slim majority in the Senate. But even the most enthusiastic Democratic cheerleader and Obama supporters will have to agree that a powerful Republican tidal wave crashed into the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress on Tuesday, delivering a blunt message to President Barack Obama and his allies.
Republicans are probably going to argue that the message reads: 'No. You Can't!' And that is a clear rejection by the American voters of Mr Obama's ambitious economic and social agenda. This message has been amplified by campaign efforts of the Tea Party movement that has succeeded in getting some of its leaders elected to Congress, including Republican Rand Paul who won the Kentucky Senate race.
And count on Senator-elect Paul and the other elected Tea Partiers on Capitol Hill to press the Congressional Republican leaders, the new House Speaker, Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, and the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to obstruct any effort by the White House to pursue its agenda, even if that would force the shutdown of the federal government.
But is that kind of strategy of obstruction going to work? And more important, is that really what the voters want the Republicans to do? What exactly was the 'message' that American voters delivered on Tuesday?
In general, American voters have tended to express their discontent with sitting presidents and their Congressional allies during midterm elections by voting for candidates representing the opposition party during midterm elections - even in years in which the country enjoyed peace and prosperity. For example, in 1994, two years after being elected as president, Bill Clinton and the Democrats suffered a major electoral defeat when the Republicans picked up 57 House seats and regained control of that legislative body.
So it was not surprising that in a year when a sluggish economy and high rate of unemployment at home and two costly military interventions abroad have created a sense of anxiety among Americans, many voters decided to express their dissatisfaction with the condition of the country and punish President Barack Obama and the Democrats by electing a large contingency of Republicans, including several members of the Tea Party.
That is clearly a political setback for the White House and the Democrats, including to some veteran Democratic lawmakers, such as Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin who lost his seat.
This impressive Republican victory comes two years after Mr Obama was swept into office, pledging to transform the way policies were made in Washington and reform the American economy.
Indeed, against the backdrop of the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression, the Obama victory and the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2008 created expectations that the new president would usher in a new political era.
He and his party were expected to replace the free market-oriented approach introduced by Republican president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s with their more progressive agenda by focusing on government as an agent of economic and social change and embracing more liberal social-cultural policies.
That Mr Obama and the Democrats were supported by an energised coalition consisting of young voters, suburban women, urban professionals, blue-collar workers, Hispanics and African-Americans raised the prospects that, not unlike other powerful 'transformative' presidents (Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt and Republican Reagan), the young and bi-racial Mr Obama would succeed in changing the electoral balance of power in Washington - marking the end of Republican influence and producing a new Democratic majority that would dominate the White House and Capitol Hill for many years to come.
But in the aftermath of the Republican victories in the 2010 midterms, conservative pundits recall those 2008 expectations as nothing more than political fantasies concocted by members the so-called liberal media. The talking heads on Fox News television and the right-wing bloggers are suggesting now that the American voters have rejected the 'socialist' programme advanced by the White House and that the wins by Tea Party candidates such as Republican Marco Rubio in the Senate race in Florida are supposedly a sign that Americans remain committed to Mr Reagan's vision of small government, low taxes and less regulation as well as to conservative social-cultural values.
And they argue that Mr Obama's victory in 2008 was not a historic election - but a 'fluke' that resulted from the Republicans' failure to accentuate their conservative credentials and to mobilise their supporters.
That in the 2010 election campaign so many Republicans got elected by demonising Mr Obama and that many Democratic candidates were trying to distance themselves from him and his policies seems amazing if one recalls that just two years ago that Democratic politicians and a few Republicans had concluded that the Obama touch would prove to be magical for any candidate running for office.
Again, as Republicans and conservatives see it, Mr Obama was just another case of a failed Democratic president - more like Jimmy Carter than like Roosevelt - whose policies could not get the economy moving and create new jobs and who was one more of those Harvard educated liberal 'elitists' who represented the interests of ruling classes in Wall Street and Washington and who was out of touch with the economic concerns and the traditional values of middle-class Americans. And they predict that Mr Obama, like Mr Carter, will be a one-term president.
Indeed, Republican Senator McConnell has already made it clear that for the Republicans in Congress 'the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president'. Mr McConnell and House Speaker Boehner may have concluded that by continuing to play the role of the Party of No - as they have been doing for the last two years - and by rejecting all the major policy initiatives proposed by Mr Obama, the Republicans will not only be responding to the pressure from their Tea Party constituency.
They will also succeed in weakening Mr Obama and creating the conditions for an all-out Republican victory in 2012 - a takeover of the White House and Congress.
After all, pursuing the strategy of 'No' and bashing Mr Obama - with some of the Tea Partiers and their echo chamber the media (Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh) implying that Mr Obama was a Muslim or/and was born in Kenya - seemed to be very effective from the Republican perspective. The support for Mr Obama has been sliding in the opinion polls while a large number of Americans seem to be buying into the Republican-Tea-Party-Fox News message that the healthcare insurance reform legislation and the economic stimulus package demonstrated the Democrats' commitment to wasteful government spending and have done nothing to improve the economic conditions of most Americans.
But if indeed it ends up being adopted by the Republican leadership, such an obstructionist strategy could produce a political backlash against the 2010 winners, in the same way that that kind of obstructionist approach adopted by the Republicans in the House after their 1994 midterm wins played directly into the hands of president Clinton who succeeded in branding them as an obstacle to progress and who eventually was re-elected to second term in 1996.
In a way, it is possible that the Republicans in 2010, like the Democrats in 2008, may be misreading the political mind of the American voters this year.
Interestingly enough, most opinion polls indicate that American voters didn't hold a favourable view of either the Democrats or the Republicans. In fact, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted a few days before the elections, half of the respondents who said that they were planning to vote for Republican Congressional candidates explained that they were doing that as a protest against President Obama's economic policies and not in order to demonstrate their support for the Republicans and their economic policies.
Indeed, that old and worn cliche, 'It's the economy, stupid', continues to provide the most precise explanation for the behaviour of voters - in 2008 as well as in 2010.
Most voters - and especially those who consider themselves to be politically 'independent' - make their choices not based so much on the ideological positions of the candidates or the grand narratives promoted their political parties.
These voters expect the presidents and the lawmakers they elected to provide a way out of the economic mess and towards prosperity. President Obama and the Democrats were seen as the alternative to the Republicans in the aftermath of the financial meltdown in 2008 and ensuing recession.
And since Mr Obama and the Democrats are seen by a large number of voters as responsible for the failure to accelerate the economic recovery and create new jobs, the same voters are now turning to the Republicans to send a message to Mr Obama that he would need to do more to fix the economy if he wants to get re-elected in 2012.
Not surprisingly, the voters who helped tip the balance of power in favour of the Republicans this year are many of the same Independents who had voted for Mr Obama in 2008. It's not inconceivable that if the Republicans will be seen as responsible for the lack of progress in the economic conditions in the next two years when they are going be in charge of the House, the same Independents will change their vote in the 2012.
And so on and so forth. Indeed, continuing economic stagnation could create the conditions for electoral volatility, with Congress and the White House changing hands quite frequently in the coming years. And if the economy starts growing again and creating new jobs in the next two years - a very Big If - President Obama will probably be re-elected in 2012. If not, it is likely that he will be a one-term president.
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